Smoking ban sparks dispute between county, tribe

FIFE – Despite two citations for violating Washington’s new statewide smoking ban, the Puyallup Tribe continues to let patrons light up at its Emerald Queen Casino.

Dr. Federico Cruz-Uribe, director of the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department, says an agreement the tribe signed in 2004, allowing it to move the casino from waterfront land in the Port of Tacoma to an Interstate 5 location in Fife, requires it to follow the same state and local laws as other businesses.

Tribal spokesman John Weymer counters the tribe is a sovereign nation, unencumbered by the smoking ban.

The dispute hinges on whether the voter-approved smoking ban applies to tribal casinos that aren’t on reservation land – an issue the law does not address.

The Puyallups’ main casino near East Tacoma is on reservation land. The tribe can operate its other casino, at the Fife location of a former Best Western hotel on nontribal land, for up to six years before it must enter a trust, said Susan Arland, a spokeswoman for the Washington State Gambling Commission.

Businesses on nontribal lands are subject to the ban, but Janelle Guthrie, spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office, said “it’s not crystal clear whether or not it would be (enforceable) on trust lands.”

The federal government holds trust land for use by Indian tribes, whose own governments determine rules on the land.

It’s also not clear whether the ban is enforceable on Indian reservations, but it’s “reasonably likely” that courts would find it isn’t, Guthrie said. Neither situation has been challenged in court, she said, noting that she did not know of any pending cases.

Sen. Bob Morton, R-Orient, sent a letter to state Attorney General Rob McKenna on Jan. 31 asking for clarification on a several smoking ban questions, including several related to tribal businesses.

Requests for an attorney general’s opinion typically take 60 to 90 days to complete, said Jim Pharris, deputy solicitor general.

In a Feb. 17 letter to the health department, Pierce County Executive John Ladenburg wrote the tribe “voluntarily made an enormous contribution to the economic vitality of our communities and should not now suffer” for moving its casino from trust land in the port to nontrust land in Fife.

Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Belfair, has sponsored a bill that would immediately grant the Fife land trust status, the congressman’s spokesman, George Behan, said. He noted that the U.S. Senate approved a companion bill last fall sponsored by Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.

County health inspectors twice visited the Emerald Queen Casino in the week after the smoking ban took effect Dec. 8, according to inspection records.

After an eight-minute inspection Dec. 13, inspectors cited the casino for allowing people to smoke inside the building and for not posting “no smoking” signs. A 15-minute inspection the next day found the same problems.

Inspectors haven’t returned since Dec. 14. They’ve put further inspections on hold until the attorney general’s office responds to Morton’s letter.

The “general rule” is that state regulations don’t apply to Indian-owned land, regardless of whether the land is held in trust, said Robert Anderson, assistant professor and director of the Native American Law Center at the University of Washington School of Law.

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